Free Verse Mind 5
A few weeks ago I was reading an interview with Mary Jo Salter. I was reading a lot of material found on the web about Salter because she has a lot of sympathy for syllabic poetry in English, has written some herself, and has reflected that interest as editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry (an astonishingly great collection of English language poetry from Old English examples right down to the present).
In one of the interviews, the interviewer asks Salter about rhyme in a way that reflects a certain attitude common among many free verse poets. I found it instructive. Here is the exchange:
NL: A few years ago, Carolyn Kizer was interviewed in this magazine – by the poet Michelle Boisseau – and Carolyn discussed the difficulty, especially nowadays, with rhyme. She said, basically, all good rhymes – the normative rhymes – have been used up. The job of a contemporary poet writing in English is to use rhymes that don't recycle everything that's already been done. You use a considerable amount of rhyme in your writing, and I'm wondering how you approach that problem.
SALTER: It's a fascinating question, because some of the poets whom I admire differ so much on this. I can only conclude that you have – again, it's back to temperament – you have to figure out what your temperament tells you to do. For example, Richard Wilbur, whom I admire about as much as any poet alive, feels strongly that he does not want to write off-rhymes. He wants them on, really nailed. It's interesting, because he, himself, is a great fan of Emily Dickinson, as I am, and she was one of the strangest off-rhymers you'll ever see. If Carolyn Kizer means that all of the exact rhymes have been used before, that's absolutely true. In terms of making up new ways for sounds to chime with each other, there are some excellent poets writing today who are pushing the boundaries of what a rhyme is: poets such as Paul Muldoon or Derek Walcott, who make us hear differently, the way Emily Dickinson did.
(You can read the entire interview here: http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_salter.php )
I want to make a number of observations about this. First, note that popular culture is not at all concerned that all the good rhymes have been used up. I am thinking of popular song which continues to simply go forward using those very same rhymes which English poetry has been using for centuries. What I think this reveals is the gap that has opened up between song and poetry; and that modern free verse poets have self-alienated themselves from song. This estrangement from song is something new for poetry and is one of the distinguishing features of free verse.
Another observation would be that the sun rises every morning. I tend to take a walk early in the morning, just about sunrise. And, sure enough, the sun just keeps rising, right on time, each morning. Is this boring? Has the sun used up its quota of sunrises? Should the sun consider another approach to the shedding of its light?
Plums blossom in late winter/early spring year after year. And year after year we enjoy them. Birds fly south in the fall: fall after fall. And the moon cycles through its phases month after month.
What I would suggest is that the repetition of a rhyme, its frequent use in song and poetry, mimics these natural occurrences. And that this connection with the patterned unfolding of events in the world, and the connection that rhyme has to this kind of patterning, is part of what makes rhyme so effective.
In another interview, Salter touches on this:
Here's a question we also asked Marie Ponsot, one we think is fun for poets to ponder: Do you think forms live naturally in language, or does one have to summon them?
I'm fascinated by the messages, you could even say instructions, that different languages seem to offer poets. Take some of the most common rhymes in English: "night/bright" (which suggests a contrast in meaning); "light/bright" (which is nearly synonymous); or grief/relief (which suggests a hoped-for sequence of feelings), etc. Those particular conjunctions of sound and meaning are inherent in the English of our time, and depending on the sort of poem you're hoping to write, you're either going to aim for or away from them. But you can't pretend they're not there. Not only that: your goals are going to be different if you're writing with French words, and within French grammar and culture. To the extent that forms live "naturally" in language, they only live within a particular language in a very specific way. Forms come out of such distinctions. I have no idea whether this is what you're asking!—but it's an angle I think from, often.
(The full interview can be found here:
Salter does not directly connect the appearance of rhyme with repeated appearances of natural phenomena; but Salter does note that rhyme is built into a language, that rhyme is something that naturally occurs. If one looks at language as a part of nature, in the way one would look at trees, for example, then the appearance of rhyme in a linguistic context resembles the appearance of leaves on trees, or the emerging of certain kinds of plants in spring. And just as different regions of the earth generate different kinds of plants, so also different language regions will generate different rhyme contexts and associations.
If this is true, why do free verse poets (most of them) think otherwise? What is it that puts them off about using a rhyme that many others have used, that popular culture still uses without hesitation?
I would like to suggest that it partly has to do with the need to be original, to be unique. In a previous post on Free Verse Mind I pointed out that when I compose a sonnet, and I adopt a standard rhyme scheme, say Shakespearean, I do not own that rhyme scheme. That rhyme scheme isn’t something I have created, it is not my property and I cannot claim credit for it. In an important respect, when a poet composes in a predetermined form the poet decides to conform to a tradition. And when a poet decides to conform to a tradition that reduces the range of originality that the poem embodies, reduces the sense that the poem is the work of a single individual.
I believe that the same applies to specific rhymes. How many times has ‘love’ been rhymed with ‘above’ or ‘dove’. Lots of times. Can we even count them? Or how many times has ‘night’ been rhymed with ‘light’ or ‘right’. Again, lots of times. So when a poet uses that kind of rhyme there is a sense of the poet using a collective resource rather than writing something original. Popular song is simply not concerned about this, but modern free verse poets are.
There is another way of looking at using a rhyme that has already been used a lot. And that is to look at such usage as a form of allusion. What I mean is that a rhyme that is widely used in poetry and song has a cultural resonance formed from threads of association to other usages of this same rhyme. These shared usages give the rhyme cultural depth through the allusive associations. If I rhyme ‘blue’ and ‘you’, there is a meaning derived from all those songs and poems that share that rhyme and this sharing enriches the meaning of the rhyme.
I suspect that this is one reason why such rhyme usage still predominates in popular song; because popular song isn’t embarrassed about making those connections. In contrast, free verse mind is all about being an individual and in this context being an individual means being an autonomous individual. To use a rhyme that is widely shared and known is to lose a degree of autonomy; it is to confess that one is relying on others.
If there is one aspect of modern free verse poetry which alienates it from popular culture it is the lack of rhyme. When I read free verse poets referring to how rhyme has been exhausted through overuse I have to wonder where they live. They must work very hard at isolating themselves from the culture at large to come to that conclusion. No one outside of their self-referential circles of free poets feels that way. Composers of popular song do not feel that way and neither do their listeners. All you have to do is listen to a cd of popular song and that impression of exhaustion will disappear in a single hearing.
I’ve said this before, but I think it is worth repeating: From my perspective, rhyme is the most underutilized tool in English language poetry for the syllabic poet. My sense is that this is the case because most poets who come to syllabics do so after a stint in free verse, usually of a long duration. For such a poet, and I include myself, using rhyme isn’t at one’s fingertips in the way it is for songwriters or metrical poets. It is a new skill that needs to be cultivated. One way to cultivate this sense of rhyme is to see how using rhyme connects us with the nature of our language, English; how using rhyme connects us with nature in its patterned unfolding. In a sense, rhyme is the sunrise of poetry.